Terry Ann Martin loves her job. She spends the day talking to people "who want to do nice things," and nobody ever gets mad at her.
"I have a wonderful job," she said. "When you leave here in the afternoon, you go out whistling."
As placement director at the Volunteer Center in Torrance, Martin matches people who want to help others with people who need help. And that makes her very happy.
"I talked to this many people today who want to do something nice," she said Tuesday, fanning a stack of papers at her desk. Each form represents a volunteer wanting to "adopt" a needy family for Christmas.
Martin, 33, runs the center's Adopt-a-Family program, which pairs low-income families throughout the South Bay with persons willing to provide food or funds for a holiday meal or presents for children who will otherwise go without.
About 100 families feasted on Thanksgiving turkey last week thanks to the efforts of Martin and her volunteer staff. Now she is gearing up for Christmas, hoping to top last year's labors when 176 families received yuletide baskets or gift certificates. But the season does not look promising.
"When the economy's down, giving is up. When the economy's up, giving is down," Martin said. "Last year, when the canneries closed, everyone in the South Bay knew somebody out of work. This year unemployment is down.
The needy she is trying to help include not just the traditional nuclear families fallen on hard times, but lonely senior citizens, teen-age mothers and working single parents whose budgets do not allow for holiday extras.
She helps them by fielding calls from people who hear about the program and want to make donations. Martin then gives their names to a local nonprofit agency that, in turn, assigns the donor a family in need.
Donors--or "adopters," as Martin calls them--may choose to shop for food for a Christmas supper or purchase a gift certificate in any amount from a local discount store. Or they may simply send a check directly to the Volunteer Center.
A donation in any form is gratefully accepted but, when pressed, Martin said: "A gift certificate is one of the most unselfish moves I know of. This lets the family buy their own Christmas."
Most gifts are made anonymously, so that "no one has to be embarrassed," Martin said. But one couple who chose to deliver their gift personally a few years ago got more than they bargained for. She recalled:
"A couple about 36 years old adopted a single mom with two little girls. They'd never been around small children before, and they'd never been to Toys R Us. They bought toys, and the husband got two coats and they took them to the family on Christmas Eve day.
"The mother asked them in, and they all fell in love. They asked them to come back for Christmas. The couple was outside the house at 3:15 a.m., waiting for the lights to go on. Now they baby-sit regularly."
People who wish to help, but cannot afford elaborate gifts, can still make a contribution, Martin said.
"We need stuffed animals for convalescent homes and Christmassy tray favors. We need carolers to entertain at convalescent homes and Head Start centers. We need volunteers to deliver meals to shut-ins. And we need a Santa suit. We lost ours."
Martin also encourages corporations to sponsor "adoptions" of seniors in rest homes or children in hospital wards instead of the traditional office party.
"Everybody can think of something they can do in their own organization. Or they can call me, and I'll help them think of something. I have millions of ideas."
Some donors already pledged for Christmas giving have come up with some creative plans. Martin flipped through her notebook, reading off her adoption forms and sounding truly pleased:
"We have a Daisy Brownie troop--eight 5-year-olds--adopting a senior couple. They'll be coming to their house with Christmas cookies and will sing carols. . . .
"A retired couple called. They wanted to adopt a senior that has nobody. They want to help with repairs and drive to the doctor's office. . . .
"A group of friends who live on the same street in Torrance are adopting four families."
Martin has worked at the Volunteer Center for five years. But her wonder and enthusiasm at the generosity of others remain fresh with every donation.
"A lady read about Adopt-a-Family just before Thanksgiving. She sent her $100 Federal Express from the San Gabriel Valley!" Martin's blue eyes widened in amazement.
But she is especially impressed by those who have little and still give. "I'm surprised by all the single parents out there who are adopting. They say, 'I'm a single mother but I can still help one or two people.' "
Working at the Volunteer Center, Martin said, "is like a religious experience. You get reborn. I go out of here feeling pretty damn good."